August 27th, 2018 · 22 comments
The Simple Life
Charles Wagner was a French reformed pastor who worked around the turn of the twentieth century. He preached a radical gospel that rejected dogma and promoted simple living and love of nature.
In 1901, he published a book titled The Simple Life, which angered religious authorities, but became popular in America once translated into English by Mary Louise Hendee.
The fourth chapter of the book is titled “Simplicity in Speech.” It opens with Wagner’s assessment of the current state of human communication. It starts with a familiar claim:
“Formerly the means of communication between men were considerably restricted. It was natural to suppose that in perfecting and multiplying avenues of information, a better understanding would be brought about. Nations would learn to love each other…citizens of one country would feel themselves bound in closer brotherhood…Nothing could have seemed more evident.”
But even in Wagner’s time, it was clear that this theory wasn’t playing out as expected:
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August 23rd, 2018 · 31 comments
A Lonely Voice Finds Company
I’ve been publicly criticizing social media since at least 2010. For most of this period, most of the people I encountered were either puzzled or annoyed by my stance on these services.
When the event organizers first posted the video of my anti-social media TEDx talk, for example, they changed my suggested title, “Quit Social Media,” to something blander, along the lines of “Why deep work is important in the new economy.” I think this was a good-intentioned effort to make me seem less eccentric. I had to ask them to change it back.
When I subsequently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that social media’s role in career advancement was overhyped, I created such an uproar that the paper took the rare step of commissioning a response op-ed the next week with the sole purpose of refuting my dangerous ideas.
But then things began to change.
At some point in early 2017, as the various shockwaves emanating from the Trump election victory began to align and amplify, sentiment toward these services started shifting in ways I hadn’t noticed before.
I began, for example, to receive more notes of support and less confused looks when I told people I’ve never had a social media account.
Prominent figures suddenly announced they were leaving these services.
Last weekend, at the Kent Presents ideas conference, I sat on a panel called “The Social Media Crisis.” The crowd attending was so large they had to setup chairs in the hallway outside the auditorium doors.
The cultural conversation surrounding social media, in other words, is undergoing a rapid and surprisingly complicated evolution.
With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful exercise for both my readers and myself to do my best here to briefly summarize my understanding of the current state of this burgeoning social media reform movement…
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August 9th, 2018 · 25 comments
Earlier this week, Zeynep Tufekci appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast. If you don’t know Tufekci, you should: she’s one of my favorite academic thinkers on the intersection of technology and society.
During the interview, Tufecki discussed her investigation of YouTube’s autoplay recommendation algorithm. She noticed that YouTube tends to push users toward increasingly extreme content.
If you start with a mainstream conservative video, for example, and let YouTube’s autoplay feature keep loading your next video, it doesn’t take long until you’re watching white supremacists.
Similarly, if you start with a mainstream liberal video, it doesn’t take long until you’re mired in a swamp of wild government and health conspiracies.
Tufecki is understandably concerned about this state of affairs. But what’s the solution? She offers a suggestion that has become increasingly popular in recent years:
“We owe it to ourselves to [ask], how do we design our systems so they help us be our better selves, [rather] than constantly tempting us with things that, if we sat down and were asked about, would probably say ‘that’s not what we want.'”
This represents a standard response from the growing digital ethics movement, which believes that if we better train engineers about the ethical impact of their technology design choices, we can usher in an age in which our relationship with these tools is more humane and positive.
A Pragmatic Alternative
I agree that digital ethics is an important area of inquiry; perhaps one of the more exciting topics within modern philosophical thought.
But I don’t share the movement’s optimism that more awareness will influence the operation of major attention economy conglomerates such as YouTube. The algorithm that drives this site’s autoplay toward extremes does so not because it’s evil, but because it was tasked to optimize user engagement, which in turn optimizes revenue — the primary objective of a publicly traded corporation.
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August 1st, 2018 · 36 comments
An Anti-Social Response
Last week, Facebook reported weaker than expected second quarter earnings and warned investors to expect diminished growth. As a result, its stock promptly fell 19%, wiping out over $120 billion in market capitalization. No publicly traded US company has ever lost more dollar value in a single day.
This seems like bad news for the social media giant, perhaps the first indication that its struggles over the past couple of years are catching up to its bottom line.
But not everyone agrees.
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